Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church, originally located eight miles north of Jonesborough, has been accepted by historians as the first organized church body in Tennessee territory. Tidence Lane moved from North Carolina in 1776 to the Watauga Settlement, where he established and pastored the first congregation.
The first church was constructed of logs with a clapboard roof. A single window provided the light for the pastor to read his text and “line off” his hymns. There was a large fireplace, one window placed high in the end of the building out of the range of Indian gunfire, and a heavy wooden door. The seats were of split logs and had no backs.
In 1785, Jonathan Mulkey succeeded Lane as pastor.
By 1786 there were seven Baptist churches organized in upper East Tennessee; Kendrick’s Creek (Double Springs); Bent Creek (Whitesburg); Beaver Creek (Sullivan County); Greasy Cove (near Erwin); Cherokee Creek; North Fork of the Holston (Abingdon, Va.); and Lower French Broad (Dandridge).
Pastor Mulkey was instrumental in forming the first Baptist Association in Tennessee, the Holston Baptist Association, in October of that year, and remained active in it till the end of his life.
By 1817 Buffalo Ridge had a membership of 300, but for many reasons, membership declined over the next several years. Around 1815 some preachers began preaching a “Reformation.”
Jonathan Mulkey served Buffalo Ridge for forty-one years until his death in 1826. When the weight of his years laid heavy upon him, and his health had faded, the congregation placed a chair near the pulpit for him to sit down and “pour out his soul in melting exhortations to a devoted people who would listen to his every word.”
The church suddenly found itself without a pastor; furthermore the change in doctrine caused a division in the church and a loss of many members. Membership declined to 23 in 1828. Better times returned to the church with the selection of Rees Bayless as pastor. Membership increased over 300 percent during his pastorate.
Several newly organized Baptist churches sprang up over the next few years, including Limestone and Union. Some members left Buffalo Ridge to join these churches, causing another drop in membership. In the 1854 epidemic of cholera, Buffalo Ridge lost 19 members and the association reported 168 deaths overall.
By 1848 a new building was needed and a committee was appointed. Church minutes record that “Reverend Martin Kitzmiller preached the first sermon that ever was preached in the New Brick Church, March 22, 1851.” The debt on the new brick church was settled in July 1858.
During the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, Buffalo Ridge slowly lost membership due to population shifts and the isolated location of the church. By 1915 the church had only 77 members and closed due to a lack of support. For nearly ten years, the only time the church doors were opened was for an occasional funeral service.
The church was revived by Missionary S.W. Tindell in the early 1920′s. On October 1, 1922, the membership decided to relocate at Gray’s Station (now Gray, TN), about one mile from the original site. The first services in the new location were held in the upper room of Maden & Saunders Store. After a time, the congregation moved to the “upper room of the canning factory”, then to the high school building. For a while, meetings were even held under a tent. In 1927 the new church building was completed.
On top of Buffalo Ridge in the Buffalo Ridge Cemetery is a marker telling all who visit there that they are standing on very historical and memorable ground. This marker is inscribed: “Here stood Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church 1778 First Baptist Church in Tenn. Pastors Tidence Land, organizer 1778-1785, Johnathan Mulkey 1785-1826. Baptist Historical Society & E. Tenn. W.M.U. Golden Jubilee memorial 1938.”
sources: The Overmountain Men, by Pat Alderman, The Overmountain Press, 1986
History of Washington County Tennessee, Watauga Association of Genealogists – Upper East Tennessee, Walsworth Press, 1988.
The Baptists of Tennessee, Volume One, by A.B. Tindell et al., Kingsport: Southern Publishers Inc., 1930.